Tag Archives: backstory

Backstory: The A-levels

I know you were completely hooked on the Audit Commission Crhonicles (*yawn*) but today was A-level results day here. There was a flurry of chat about it on twitter and I said what results I’d managed 23 years ago: Two Ds and an E. And when someone asked me privately “How did that happen? You’re such a clever guy.” I gave my stock answer, which is that I discovered the joys of beer and girls in my sixth form.

But because I’m thinking a lot about extending narratives and backstories, it occurred to me that there was more to the story than that – I mean that is the truth, that’s something that happened then, but it’s not the whole reason that I got two Ds and an E. There’s much more to the truth than that. So I started looking at what it was really about – what I don’t normally want to talk about, what I cover up with the stock answer.

Because lets face it, having a laugh about the joys of beer and girls is much more comfortable than looking at the whole truth.

So here’s some more of the truth.

First off, there’s more to the results – I also got an A in General Studies but I miss that out because it doesn’t fit with the story and because it’s too easy to get into an argument about whether General Studies counts or not and it doesn’t seem to matter whether people did it or not, they’re equally divided about it’s value, mainly on the basis of what grade they or someone they know got. So that gets left out. But it tells you something. It tells you that I do have some natural ability, some curiosity for current affairs and good general knowledge across a range of disciplines. I’m a good generalist. That’s more widely valued these days than it was in 1983 but if you started hiding it back then, it seems a little weak to bring it up now…

What else was going on? I was studying German, French and Latin. Yeah. How did that come about? Well specialisation started earlier then, I think. When you chose your O-level options before the fourth form you narrowed a lot, but also in the school I went to the timetable was less flexible – classes in the third form were based around it. There were 10 classes of about 30 kids each in my year. The “top” two were the ones who did Latin and modern languages. The middle ones were more technical and scientific and the lowest ones completely manual – technical drawing, metal and woodwork for the boys, girlie stuff for the girls. We all did a bit of music and art and RE but clearly being able to do languages was important and Latin was a badge of honour with teachers and disgust with other pupils.

I got a lot more positive attention, far more easily for having a talent for languages than I would have done if I’d had a natural talent for art or making things. So that’s what I chose. I didn’t have to work too hard at all and I got through.

That’s the beginning of the mistake, if you like, trying to take the easy way. But it cut me off from an important bit of me, the space to be creative. My only option was extra-curricular drama (no not knife fights in the park. Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Real Inspector Hound.) And I hung on to this, knowing that being creative was something that was really important to me.

So when it came to choosing A-levels, I wasn’t going to do Maths, Physics or Chemistry, I’d jettisoned everything else and because I fell out with the head of English, for the reasons that headstrong and arrogant 16-year-olds fall out with tired, middle-aged men teaching in a Midlands comprehensive, two years of English was a no-no. So I ended up doing a triple-whammy of translation and heavy literature.

Essentially decisions I made at the age of 13 together with the demographics of the time and the inflexibility of the timetable led me to an extremely constrained position five years later.

And I completely lost the will to work at any of it. I didn’t see the point in studying literature and I couldn’t be bothered. And it was a means to an end that I wasn’t interested in either (although I couldn’t admit that either). When it came out that I was applying for drama degrees, I had a long discussion with the headmaster who told me that a career in the arts was a ridiculous waste of the education I’d been given and that I should join an amateur dramatics group while doing a Modern Languages degree. He didn’t know that I already felt I was compromising but didn’t know how to get out of the ridiculous bind I was in.

So I did the only thing I could do to save myself from doing something I didn’t have the heart to do nor had the guts to refuse. I simply didn’t do the work. In particular, I didn’t read very much of the German, French or Latin literature that is (was?) a core part of A-level study in those subjects. So Goethe is still a mystery to me though I remembered “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen bluehen” when I went through the Brenner pass last summer. I couldn’t tell you what La Chute was about except a guess that a guy having some existential breakdown in Amsterdam and while Aeneid VI is one of the more engaging books, Pliny and Ovid left me totally cold. And those are the ones that I can remember the titles of. I was never going to get the two Bs and a C that would condemn me to 3 years in Aberystwyth.

Result!

So I spent the next year still in Bromsgrove. Laying about on the dole. No! That’s another stock answer, that covers up what I was really doing. What I really did in the 12 months before I left home in September 1984 was that I became a political activist, learning rhetorical speaking and camaraderie and ways of organising people around passions – how pointless is that if you want a real job? And I spent the rest of my time working as a volunteer at the Swan Theatre in Worcester, effectively as an unpaid Acting ASM learning a bit of my trade as an actor, which of course although relevant to me spending three years at the Guildford School of Acting couldn’t possibly prepare me for doing something useful once I was over 40. Yeah, I didn’t do anything in my lazing-about year.

So there you go. More truth. Is there any more in there? I don’t know at the moment, perhaps there is. What other “cover stories” and “stock answers” are there?

Backstory: The Audit Commission – Part I

Interestingly, as I’m thinking about what you say and what you don’t and considering how to flesh out the story of me online, this weekend it was announced that the Audit Commission is to be abolished.

The Audit Commission was a big part of my working life. Did you know that? Probably not, there might be fleeting references to it, but to an extent, when I left in 2002 I drew a line under it as an experience and moved on. So as an interesting exercise in backstory writing (ie creating panels before the first panel – and of course a gutter between) what did I do there?

I arrived at the Commission’s Vincent Square headquarters on 1 August 1994. It was coincidentally the day that Commission staff were all moving back into VSQ after refurbishment, so it was a more laid back introduction than I’d expected and everyone else had a little air of being new themselves. I was there as a placement student for a year as part of my degree in Computing & IT at Surrey University.

My role as a student was to provide data analysis support to study teams in the directorate of Local Government Studies. I found myself allocated to a number of studies, but primarily a team just starting to look at the education of children under five. In the course of the year I got more and more excited by the prospect of understanding public services by collecting data and going out and talking to people.

The classic commission study contained a comprehensive and thorough narrative exploring the area of interest coupled with facts and analyses to support the argument. In addition there was usually an audit tool of some sort which would allow local auditors to carry out a value for money audit in the services affected.

So much of my time was spent following the study team around, carrying bags and getting to understand what they were doing and seeing where I could spot things that could be measured and interesting stories that might be told based on thbe data. It wasn’t up to me to come up with the stories, more to spot interesting avenues of investigation and then, if the study team agreed then to look further.

A running joke was that study teams always found there to be “significant variation between councils’ performance in X” for a number of Xs. Spotting variation was only the beginning. Explaining why variation occurred and what managers could do to improve their performance was much more important.

Not much was expected of us as students, but I loved bringing large sets of data together and seeing what you could tell from it. So I set about recording all of the data we were collecting, right down to attendance patterns in nursery schools into one big database that I could play around with.

The key output of this was a spreadsheet that allowed an auditor to compare the data they collected in an individual educational setting, or across a local authority, with national averages. My innovation was to present this data in the form of a “cost tree” for cost per child per hour.

A figure for cost per anything is usually one big number divided by some other big number, so in this case the total cost of provision divided by the number of child hours provided. Now this might vary for a wide range of reasons but by laying out the factors that go to make up the costs and those that might vary in the calculation of the total number of child hours (a policy decision, for example, to limit the number of hours 3-year-olds might get) it was much easier to see where differences arose.

It was very simple in the end but effective. It gave people something to think about, something to discuss and help them put a local picture into a national context. As well as helping the study team understand the dynamics of costs and differences between the costs of types of setting, it would help auditors to show councils where they might make improvements.

I went back to university for my final year, but was very pleased when the people in the study team lobbied for me to be recruited following graduation. But that’s a story for another day.

OK – what does this tell you about me? How does it help explain what happens next? Does it explain anything at all? Or is the gulf between this and what you know of me today too wide for you to suspend your disbelief that they’re the same people (*I* struggle..!). Do you want to give up, or carry on? Have I jumped too far from yesterdays post for you to understand what I’m trying to do here?